The Sun Devils will start redshirt senior Taylor Kelly for his third season at the helm. Kelly was named second-team All-Pac-12 last season while throwing for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns and scoring nine times on the ground.
Weber State taps sophomore quarterback Billy Green to start. Green is a transfer from BYU who played in one game, a win over Idaho State, last season, but did not record any stats. Kelly has both the reputation and the experience over Green, giving ASU’s star the advantage.
Junior running back DJ Foster rushed for 523 yards and caught 63 passes for 653 yards and cemented his place as a featured player in this year’s offense. Foster has been widely regarded as a breakout player for the Sun Devils in 2014.
Senior Bo Bolen will return after leading the Wildcats in rushing with 569 yards and five touchdowns. Bolen also snagged 27 catches for 203 yards. Sophomore Zach Smith is primed to increase his workload in 2014 after gaining 304 yards and a score on 71 carries last year.
Wide receiver/tight end
Junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong is back to lead a mostly inexperienced receiving corps. Three of ASU’s top five pass catchers from last season have departed, leaving sophomore Cam Smith, redshirt junior Gary Chambers and redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson to pick up the slack on the outside. Redshirt senior De’Marieya Nelson and redshirt sophomore Kody Kohl are expected to take reps in place of the departed Chris Coyle at tight end.
Weber State lost its top receiving threat in Erik Walker, but sophomore wide receiver Cam Livingston led the Wildcats in touchdowns last season with four on 26 catches for 344 yards. The Wildcats did not have much production through the air last season, so most of the corps is relatively unknown, especially with a new signal caller in place.
While ASU lost Evan Finkenberg and Kody Koebensky to graduation, its offensive line is looking to be one of the best, head coach Todd Graham said. Last year, the Sun Devils allowed 38 sacks last season, which ranked them No. 102 in Division I. With redshirt senior Jamil Douglas protecting Kelly’s blind side, the unit is poised to allow fewer.
Weber State allowed 35 sacks in 2013, but the Wildcats had a team average of just 3.4 yards per carry, as opposed to the 4.4 yard average of ASU. The running game was the Wildcats’ strength a year ago, so they will attempt to use their hefty o-line to move the defense of the Sun Devils.
ASU lost two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, but the Sun Devils have been solid in the preseason on the line. Junior Jaxon Hood is expected to start against the Wildcats while freshmen Renell Wren and Tashon Smallwood have impressed thus far. Senior Marcus Hardison will likely start at defensive end as well, adding experience to the group.
The Wildcats return three key contributors on their defensive line, seniors Dustin Martin and Connor Myers and junior Obi Owoh, who combined for 113 tackles in 2013. Owah was the sack leader among the group with two.
Graham said he has been impressed with the group of linebackers thus far, praising the amount of growth redshirt sophomore Salamo Fiso, one of two returning starters, has shown in the offseason. In addition, freshman DJ Calhoun has received astounding reviews from Graham after every practice and is looking to make his mark right away.
Junior Roman Valenzuela was Weber State’s second leading tackler in 2013, making 88, including four for losses and forcing a fumble. Sophomore Felix Woods will start at the other outside linebacker spot after he made 30 stops last season.
While ASU is inexperienced in the defensive backfield, it has talented players that Graham is confident will make plays. Redshirt senior Damarious Randall is the lone returner, but Graham has faith that lead cornerback redshirt junior Lloyd Carrington will be able to fit in to the starting lineup.
The Wildcats return preseason All-Big Sky cornerback senior Deon’tae Florence to lead their secondary. Florence led the team with four interceptions, eight pass breakups and 12 pass deflections.
Sophomore kicker Zane Gonzalez is coming off of a record-setting freshman season when he set the ASU scoring record by a kicker with 138 points and tied the record for most field goals by a freshman with 25. Gonzalez was also named to the preseason Lou Groza Award Watch List. Special teams were an issue for ASU last season, but the Sun Devils are using more starters in special teams formations this season, giving them more security.
Sophomore kicker Carson Fackrell scored just nine points for the Wildcats last season, hitting his only field goal attempt and going 6-for-8 on extra points. Fackrell kicked off 36 times, totaling 19 touchbacks and sending one out of bounds.
Overall EDGE: ASU
Thursday night’s game will be a tune-up game for the Sun Devils in which the starters will play just over half of the game and allow the backups to get some playing time just in case an injury forces a depth chart change.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Tonis_The_Tiger